May 6, 1999

May 6, 1999 | Commentary on Asia

ED050699:  Admiral Joseph Prueher's Name Floated as Next U.S. Ambassador to China

The former Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Joseph Prueher, is back in the U.S.-China news, with the Washington Post political columnist Al Kamen yesterday reporting the White House will name Prueher (pronounced pree-yer) to replace former U.S. Senator James Sasser as the next U.S. ambassador in Beijing.

A spokesman for the White House today would not confirm Kamen's report.


Prueher's name has been mentioned as a contender for the position for months. A string of other nominees have turned down offers for the ambassadorship, the New York Times reported, including former Democratic Senator David Pryor of Arkansas; former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili; and former National Security Council Chairman Anthony Lake.


Ambassador Sasser's three-year tour is already over and then some. He stayed on at Clinton's request to see through both Clinton's trip to China in 1998, and Premier Zhu Rongji's visit to the U.S. last month. However, Sasser has now committed to joining the Gore 2000 presidential campaign, and is expected to return to the U.S. very soon, possibly within a month.

Good Rapport with PLA


Meanwhile, Prueher has stayed officially tight-lipped on the subject. Yet his frequent trips to China, his regular interviews given to Asian newspapers about China (especially to the Singapore Straits Times), and close interest in the U.S.-China affairs has left no one in Washington in any doubt as to his ambition to replace Sasser.


As Admiral of the Pacific Fleet, Prueher made at least six visits to China and established a solid relationship with his Chinese military counterparts by inviting them to visit his headquarters in Honolulu. During his most recent trip to China, as a member of former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry's "Track Two Diplomacy" tour, he met with China's top policy makers and sought to allay Chinese misgivings about U.S. policies toward Taiwan.


Yet if Admiral Prueher hopes to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing before the end of the Clinton Administration, establishing good rapport with China's prickly leadership is only half the battle. He will also have to win over the equally prickly Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, a noted critic of China over its human rights record.


That could be tough, given Prueher's reputation for mixing standard military tough talk with more dovish overtures to China's military. "You could be right," he said in a Los Angeles Times interview last year. "Maybe they will try to nail us in 15 years. But if you stiff them at every turn between now and then, you guarantee that they try to do that in 15 years."


In a Beijing speech, he struck a similar diplomatic note.

"The U.S. is the world's youngest military power," he said. "China is the world's oldest military power. Clearly, there is much we can learn from each other."

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared on China Online.